Looking Back: Art Docs
Feb 25, 2016 by Pedro Lopez DeVictoria on The Nickelodeon Blog
“Painting, sculpture and architecture are finished, but the art habit continues.”
Series curator Seth Gadsden found this quote, attributed to land artist Robert Smithson, to be a truly luminous spark, igniting the vision for this run of game-changing, and often, mutinous, art documentaries. It speaks of a living art, and through these five films, three original shorts, and a live musical performance, art was necessarily and brilliantly animate.
• Station to Station – 1/26
The first film, kicking off our series with a multi-sensory ambush, was Station to Station, a film by artist maestro Doug Aitken. Orchestrating a revolving door of artists, musicians, and coffee shop philosophers, the film compiles 60 one-minute films, each focusing on a different manifestation of art, each filtered through a different, articulate soul.
The talkback for this screening featured a Skype call from Seth Gadsden, the series curator, who was at Sundance at the time. Gadsden’s experience as a roaming artist with a collective on a city bus, traveling from project to project across the US, paralleled the course of the film such that the discussion focused on themes like art in transit, universal artistic mores, and the sculpting effects of the road. One story of note was related in response to a question about the relationship between the vagrant virtuoso and the community traveled through; Gadsden’s crew once enacted the entire Apollo moon landing with a small town for their annual lunar celebration, using a pirate radio station, a functional model of the lunar lander, and the participation of inspired onlookers. At the end, it seemed that not only Gadsden, but Aitken, and all others involved in these projects, all endorsed the freedom of the road as a path to self-discovery, and a secret panacea for those who feel routine speeding their life by.
• Everybody Street – 2/2
Following up a film focusing on a million artists, this film focuses on a million people, through the lenses of just a few artists. A lyrical, image-driven documentary about street photographers, particularly those in the odd-portrait goldmine of New York City, Everybody Street takes the high tower of fine art and crashes it into the cobblestone streets. As opposed to conjuring imagined worlds, the featured street photographers find profundity in exactitude via madcap exploits and oftentimes dangerous confrontations amongst the mass of humans that all carry their own peculiar beauty and precise existence, freezing it all in time.
Accompanying this film was a short by Nickelodeon Theatre 2015-2016 resident artist Josh Yates. With the impressionistic mode of 8 mm film, Yates paints an increasingly endearing and thoughtful portrait of a young street photographer and his evolving philosophy. Dorian Warneck, the subject, is a photographer as well as the creator of a local zine by the name of “Neighbors”. After the films, Warneck and Yates stuck around for a talkback, touching upon the dynamics of the observer and the observed in art. The meta nature of Yates, observing/capturing Warneck, who does the same to others, who, themselves, observe and remember the photographer, can be dizzying, but reveals much about the nature of our ability to focus, truly see and listen to each other as people in an increasingly (physically) impersonal world.
• The Mystery of Picasso – 2/9
One of the most unique and programmatically challenging films of the series was The Mystery of Picasso. Shot in 1956 by Henri Georges Clouzot, it reveals the hand behind Pablo Picasso’s mysterious and ground-breaking paintings via filming the reverse side of a canvas he works on. As you watch the development of his art, his sense of playfulness and the inherent genius in his vision is exceptionally apparent.
To accompany this film, seven musical acts prepared original work to further bring life to an assigned portion of the film. This included a range of musical styles: singer-songwriter, experimental noise, grunge, electronic, avant-jazz, etc. Performing to a sold out room, the musicians all managed to switch off for every new painting Picasso created, taking the audience through a true audio-visual journey.
The bands that played are as follows:
• !Women Art Revolution – 2/16
!Women Art Revolution — with an attention-grabbing exclamation preceding the title — is truly an attention-grabbing and bold story. Chronicling the explosive and inspiring work of late-20th century feminist artists, the film provides lucidity to those who made waves with their thought-provoking art activism, addressing the political consequences of discrimination and violence. Notable here are the Guerrilla Girls, whose goals were not only to take on social injustice for women of any discipline, but to make a change in the dynamics of women in the world of art itself.
With this film was another locally-produced short by Roni Nicole Henderson. It was a portrait of local artist Michaela Pilar Brown featuring two different art pieces, one an installation, the other a performance art piece, that explored the dimensions of grief, particularly in the African-American community, and the threat of its commodification. Both Henderson and Brown were present at the screening for a talk-back discussion, that explored both artists’ experiences as women, visionaries, and, above all, vessels for statements that ring true to their souls — a lesson in the urgency and importance of the voice, and the art that can elevate it.
• Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art – 2/23
The final installment in the Art Docs series was a perfect encapsulation of the big picture of what the series was meaning to accomplish. Art that lives, that must be captured through film, is what allows art documentaries to be a valuable apparatus of contextualization. And in this case, many of the works of art demand a level of physical fitness, determination, and faith in your gas tank, to even be glimpsed at in person. The land art movement of the 70’s consisted of a rejection of the hermetically sealed gallery-centric art world, where renegades of the scene escaped out west, to where land was in surplus, and crafted it to their own desires. Its impermanence was just as important as its impermeability, and while some had even lost their lives to this pursuit, the earth still carries scars of their dreams, visible from the stratosphere.
With this film was two short films, one by Seth Gadsden and the other a collaboration between him and Lauren Greenwald, who both have had intimate encounters with these works, and had done their part in documenting it. They stayed behind for a talk-back, and, what began as a simple Q&A, feeling out the panel’s experiences, developed into a lively conversation amongst many audience members around integral and profound questions: is art the concept, a la Duchamp, or the execution? Are the pieces and the documentation one and the same, or two separate instances of art? Traveling out to these massive land art pieces in the middle of nowhere is certainly a journey (where in some cases, you stay in a particular cabin, meet a particular person, and even get the directions to set your odometer to 0 and drive 45 miles in one direction to find a landmark that takes you in another direction, and so on…) — does this equate to a religious pilgrimage? Or is it simply a much longer stroll around a world-contained art gallery? This discussion took us from one corner of the art world to the other, and the passion everyone carried with them was inspiring, alive.
All in all, this series provided Columbia with an alternative to the static inaction of an art gallery. Punk rock and Picasso, dump trucks and discourse, coups and conjecture, locomotion and lunar landings, observers and the observed — we aren’t dead, so why should our art be?